The connections between Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and the years she spent in Dundee are to be celebrated in the city.
At just 14-years-old in 1812, Mary, who was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, travelled to Dundee to a country mansion, home to the family of wealthy jute baron William Thomas Baxter where she would stay for 15 months.
Mary would publish her best known work, Frankenstein, six years later and in the forward of the 1831 version of the seminal Gothic novel she would acknowledge the influence of Dundee on her early writings.
Now a focus group are looking at ways of celebrating those ties in Dundee after gaining the backing of the public.
Dundee link is a ‘missed opportunity’
John first became interested in the author’s connection to the City of Discovery in 2018 after attending projects held by Daniel Cook from the University of Dundee, which were based around Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. He then went on to research the author’s teenage years beside the Tay and began collecting rare original editions of her work.
He said: “Following the success of local events organised by Daniel, I was keen to see what original 200 year old editions of Frankenstein were held within the special collections of Dundee library.
“To my surprise there were none held so I started collecting extremely rare editions of Mary Shelley’s work and related works by other members of the ‘Geneva Circle’ including Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Dr John Polidori who studied medicine at Edinburgh University.
“My work on collecting attracted quite a bit of interest from the public who were keen to know more about Mary Shelley’s links with Dundee. This in turn inspired me to focus on how best we could enable public access of rare materials and ways in which we could develop local community projects.”
Describing the lack of projects surrounding Mary’s time in the city as a “missed opportunity” John alongside a steering group are now working on a range of projects to be held throughout the city in the near future.
‘Unprecedented levels of interest’
He added: “Back in January a local Facebook post about Mary Shelley attracted hundreds of messages of support from people throughout the city. With unprecedented levels of interest, the public have been hugely supportive with ideas and suggestions on what sort of community projects they would like to see developed in Dundee.
“Councillor Lynne Short has been central to developing projects and helped to organise the steering group established with help from a highly talented team.
“In addition to Lynne the team includes Daniel Cook and Matthew Jarron from the University of Dundee as well as Colin Clement from the Stobswell Forum. Daniel is a fabulous ambassador for all things Mary Shelley and I’m delighted to be working with him on a collaborative project which is both historic and particularly exciting, I’ve since received encouraging messages of support from others who are keen to get involved in developing projects in Dundee with the existing team likely to be expanded in the coming weeks.
“At this juncture it’s a little too early to announce projects but hopefully the group will be in position to release news in the next month or two. In the meantime there’s lots of hard work going on behind the scenes.
“I’m really hopeful that the projects being developed will not only help to bring all sections of the community together but will also hopefully attract inward investment to the city as well as well as helping to boost local tourism.”
Dundee’s influence on early works
Mary travelled to Dundee at just 14 looking for rest and recovery from illness. Her father William Godwin put his trust in his friend William Thomas Baxter to look after his daughter and ensure she got a better education than she was getting in London.
In a letter he wrote to Baxter, her father said: “I am anxious that she should be brought up in this respect like a philosopher even like a cynic – it will add greatly to the strength and worth of her character.”
She was housed by the family at ‘The Cottage’ – a comfortable home that had originally been constructed as the Countess of Strathmore’s dower house on South Baffin Street until leaving in 1814, before embarking on travels in Europe with her new love, Percy Shelley, who she would marry in 1816.
In the summer of that year, while on holiday on the shores of Lake Geneva she began writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – the story of young scientist Victor Frankenstein who creates a grotesque, sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment.
It would be published two years later when Mary was just 20, going on to spawn dozens of films, plays and TV adaptations.
In the forward of the 1831 version, Mary, who died in 1851 aged 53 due to a suspected brain tumour, acknowledged the influence of Dundee on her early writings, stating: “I lived principally in the country as a girl and passed a considerable time in Scotland.
“I made considerable visits to the more picturesque parts but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay near Dundee.
“Blank and dreary on retrospection I call them – they were not so to me then.
“They were the eyry of freedom and the pleasant region where unheeded I could convene with the creatures of my fancy.”